Breath so again

Again. The waterboarding
I’m half way across a street
the wet rag tight against my face
rapid concaves between my lips
muting my sodden reverse scream

Again. The starving beast in my chest
tears a tasty shred of lung
he twists, growls
his intensity like my own

The cliff I climb on the flat pavement
is so high so far so again
I snarl at the again of it
ready to rip off a piece of my own
Sisyphian lung


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The Irony of Cohen’s “Hallelujah”

It started years ago, when Leonard Cohen was still alive; but since his death, there has been an outpouring of “Hallelujah” covers on just about every conceivable medium. With virtually no exception, these tributes miss the point at the heart of of the song.

The interpretation that virtually every cover takes is that this tune is a beautiful expression of devotion to creation, the universe, Gaia, Jesus, or Jehovah. I suspect this approach stems from the use of the title word, which is repeated fifteen or twenty times, depending on how many verses are sung — and the profuse Biblical allusions. Certainly the musical composition lends itself to haunting vocal and choral arrangements.

But consider the words: the usual opening verse  refers to music pleasing thecohen-text-box Lord, but Cohen interjects with something the listener might not expect: “But you don’t really care for music, do you?” Think about how mundane and contrary that statement is.

Most of the other verses in various versions of the song (Cohen said he wrote 83 verses over the years) are about bitter, failed relationships. “I did my best, it wasn’t much, I couldn’t feel so I tried to touch” — that’s the classic male approach to relationships isn’t it? Here is a man who would not put emotion into the relationship, and had a fall-back approach of sex to cure everything. Rather than talk about the relationship or actually love the partner, he used sex to make problems go away; and we know how that goes.

Unlike the Hallelujah chorus in Handel’s Messiah, which is a magnificent hymn of praise to God, Cohen’s  “Hallelujah” is not. Rather it is an ironic comment on the treachery and loss often associated with relationships. And the title and refrain of the song are ironic.

Listen to how Cohen himself sings it. Leonard Cohen Sings “Hallelujah”

Note how he clips the word Hallelujah , yelling cynically in what is obviously a pointed irony.

But, like a kid joining a cult, the song spiraled away from Cohen’s vision. It all went wrong when K.D. Lang crafted her version ( probably based on John Cale’s arrangement that Jeff Barkley peformed) a haunting, beautiful interpretation of the song that led the audience in a whole new direction, one that exploited the musicality of the song and sounded so profoundly lyrical and lovely that audiences have come to hear beauty and exultation without considering the words.

In the beginning, Cohen was a poet who turned to song writing and performing because he knew that unless poets are independently wealthy, they are, without exception, poor.

Because he was a poet first, and a substantial one, he was saying something that we should listen to.

I have listened to the words as I studied them, then sang the song with our chorus and with my quartet. It never fails: when we begin the familiar opening rhythmical chords, people fall into lyrical raptures. You can see eyes widen, hear the “Aw” run through the audience. When I told a friend we were performing it, she said, “Oh, what a beautiful hymn of praise.”

While Cohen’s “Hallelujah” may sound like a modern hymn, it is not. I recently heard a soloist with a professional choir interject “Oh, Jesus” into her improvisation on the refrain, having just sung the somewhat sordid “Baby I’ve been here before, I know this room, I’ve walked this floor . . .”

Then there’s “She tied you to a kitchen chair . . . and from your lips she drew the  Hallelujah.”

Incongruous. Could you sing these words in a church? Not if you have been paying attention.

So what are the Biblical allusions there for?

Gravitas, Baby — they give the subject a dramatic, even tragic, edge. Otherwise, it’s pulp fiction about failed people engaging in sex instead of love.

Did Cohen know what he was doing? Of course. It’s just that the musicians forgot to read the words.

So, remember: irony, people. Irony.


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Dad was a Drunk

Hack out tongues lest they ignite
ashes that have lain long out of light:
fists on ears, eyes wired shut
inhale, exhale, hale enough.

Better all these years of lying
boarded in soggy cotton silence.

Time is distance, halted breath
breathing into its own undeath.

Memory waited, piling stones:
weapons for execution poems.

Crushing words as they emerged
hushed, into public, fully purged.

Less we regret the pain expanded
glass to mouth and we understand it.

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Rockmallow 2

The fever twists the edge
of blade and pillow:
eyes have pinpoint irises;
thumbs are gargantuan.
He shrinks within the body,
becomes a pin
in a spoor
in a mushroom
in orbit around the bed.
He watches the body
tangled in damp flannel sheets
on the surgeon’s table.
He drifts, he drifts, he drifts.

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Review: SVTC’s Camelot

For community theatre, Seaway Valley Theatre Company typically has an ambitious  schedule of five productions per year. Spamalot, this year’s big musical — “A new musical *lovingly* ripped off from the motion picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail” finished its five performances in two weeks run last Saturday night at Aultsville Theatre in Cornwall, Ontario.

Over the years, since its split from Glen Productions, SVTC has developed an astonishingly talented core of performers, many of whom have backgrounds with considerable theatrical training and experience. The dedication of these performers and production staff has given the community many remarkable productions including 2013’s stunning production of Chicago (which I saw) and 2014’s Les Miserables (which I did not attend because I could not put myself through Hugo’s downer story again.)

2015’s Spamalot was a refreshing choice, with its roots firmly planted in the tradition of outrageous modern British comedy. There was something in this show to offend just about everyone who wanted to be put upon, from gay marriage to politics to Jews in show business.

It also provided the template for some remarkable individual performances.

One of the grand traditions of comedy is the interplay between the zany character(s) and the sane one: think of Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello (Who’s on First?), Burns and Allen, or more recently, Bob Newhart who typically plays the only sane character in his universe. In Spamalot, that character is sweet, sane King Arthur, played by Monty Python’s Graham Chapman in the film, and here by professional voice-over artist, Cornwall’s Jamie Carr. The whole point here is nuanced subtlety, and Carr nailed it. It would be so easy to play King Arthur over the top for shrill laughs. But Carr, whose zany side could easily have spilled over, craftily held back and let the wit of the script carry the audience along. Carr surprised us (and possibly himself) by singing the role superbly — but should that surprise anyone, considering his roots?

Just when I think I have an idea of what Lacie Petrynka is capable of doing on stage, she upsets my applecart with a nuclear explosion. Petrynka’s astounding vocal pyrotechnics were no surprise; but her impeccable comic timing, dynamic stage presence, and switching rapidly from Barbra Streisand to Liza Minnelli to Amy Adams to Ethel Merman and, well, herself — okay, I admit I am searching for superlatives: brava!

I am certain that when Director Leslie Ellam found Jamie Carr standing before her at auditions, she must have felt like the Spaniards viewing the Pacific Ocean for the first time. Perhaps young newcomer Thomas Mooney struck her in much the same way. Like Carr, and many of the principals in this production, Mooney is the full thing: perfect comic timing, the ability to react without going over the top, the ability to listen to the lines as if for the first time, and the ability to play coconut halves in perfect rhythm — okay, they didn’t all play coconuts. Carr and Mooney worked together like peaches and cream: Carr projected the sweet calm humour of a King who is totally commanding a roller coaster flying off the tracks; Mooney was his perfect foil, part helpless Merlin and part mute political advisor. The chemistry was delicious.

Paul Aubin in the role of the cowardly Robin (there is an allusion there somewhere) really hit his pace during the cunningly outrageous “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway”, a song in stunning contrast to his poignant “Cellophane Man” in Chicago, two years ago on the same stage.

It is difficult not to watch Ray Nevill when he is on stage: he is always animated, and his face is a choric character all by itself. Nevill projects a character whom, we suspect, is on a wild ride on a very high wire in a tempest partially of his own making.

Michael DeWolfe, whether he is playing a lead character or a supporting character is always fully there, with a hint of danger and a comic delight.

Cameron MacPhee‘s languid, lush portrayal of the desperate “princess” Fred, longing for his prince to rescue him was a comic masterpiece.

Allison Main (also one of the show’s producers) was a hoot as a mustachioed knight; the Laker Girls to a woman were all gorgeous and fun to watch; the ensemble and solo singing all through the show was dynamic and appealing; crowds of people swirled around in beautiful synchronisation and in support of the intentions of each scene.

I have seen Leslie Ellam at work as a director previously, and I know that, although she has a carefully thought out approach for what she wants to happen, she is very sensitive to a performer’s needs; and it shows in the way that this show compiled into a very funny mass, just the way it had to. Not only did the show come together as a lovely comic piece in just the way that Eric Idle and company intended, but it also allowed for the individual strengths of the performers to come through.

There were a few things that needed some work. The orchestra frequently was problematic. Like music itself, a musical needs pace. The pace of the show often dragged at orchestra cues or set changes or entrances, culminating in a show that ran about 20 minutes too long. The show’s beginning on Friday night was bedeviled by a vaguely unsettling overture, spotlight miscues, very loud microphone pops in Arthur’s first scene. Those microphones taped to faces are distracting. I really wonder if this cast of powerful voices needed anything more than some discrete stage miking. Another concern is that through all the months of rehearsal leading up to the show, they were not wearing these microphones. That really flies in the face of good rehearsal practice. Nothing like throwing in a major change for opening night to rev up the anxiety levels.

SVTC is a popular Cornwall institution, just as Glen Productions was in its time, and Cornwall Operatic Society before that; now, more than ever, the talent is available to produce very high quality musicals, but if the production quality does not improve, the overall product could very well falter as audiences fall away. I suggest that the company improve its technical capabilities by seeking professional coaching. It worked for the theatre community in the 70s, and could certainly help now.

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Letter: Does Cornwall Need an Arts Coordinator?


Arts Coordinator


Does Cornwall Need an

“Arts Culture Coordinator”? 


A letter published in the Standard-Freeholder

January 19, 2015

Note: I wrote this letter to add some perspective to the issue that Councillor Brock Frost presented to City Council, that Council should investigate the Feasibility of hiring an “Arts Culture Coordinator”


The last paragraph, which appears here, was deleted by the Standard-Freeholder.


I am posting the letter here in PDF format to keep the paragraphs distinct. To enlarge, click the magnifier in the upper left corner of the letter.


Douglas Hill

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After the three hour drive south down desultory highway 11,
during which, dazed from cigarette smoke and gasoline fumes
and making a thousand comments about virgin mouse fur
and wondering if we were there yet and giggling and whining
until we were ready to throw up but not on the upholstery
and finally feasting through the car window on wild cherries
we picked from the scraggy tree leaning over the gravel shoulder
while Momma found a discrete bush well out of sight
but not too far nor too difficult to reach in open-toed sandals,

we finally arrived at the top of the escarpment. Far below
sprawled the tree-clad city of North Bay, and beyond that,
glorious sparkling Lake Nippissing with its shallow sandbanks
beach cabins, sun and islands drifting on the far horizon:
heaven on a con-your-parents-for-everything-you-can-get bun.


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